Performing Reality in the Iranian Courtroom-Style Drama Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness

The paradox of reality television has always been that the genre is, despite its name, not quite real. Instead, its primary purpose is often to raise the question of where we draw the line between performance and authenticity, and films about reality TV frequently explore this dichotomy. How Katniss Everdeen works to outmaneuver her audience in “The Hunger Games” franchise by selling them a version of herself and her relationship with Peeta Mellark. The existential doubt suffered by Jim Carrey’s titular character in “The Truman Show” when he learns his entire life has been televised. What choices do you make differently when you know you’re the subject of endless scrutiny? How do you uphold your identity when faced with decisive judgment?

Those are the questions considered by “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness,” this year’s winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival. From Iranian filmmaker Massoud Bakhshi, “Yalda” mimics the style of a courtroom drama but transports the location to the set of a reality TV show. Set during an Iranian holiday that emphasizes spiritual rebirth, “Yalda” follows a young woman vacillating between defending her choices and begging for her life. With female characters from all corners of Iranian society, the film’s depiction of womanhood—mother, daughter, sister, ally of the government, doubter of it—reflects a culture in which performing identity and reality are deeply intertwined.

Bakhshi’s inspiration for “Yalda” is real Iranian programs like “Mah-e Asal” (translated from Iranian to “Honey Moon” in English), a daily show which aired from 2007 to 2018 during the holy month of Ramadan. Hosted by the soft-spoken smooth talker Ehsan Alikhani, “Mah-e Asal”—which aired live to millions of viewers around the country—regularly featured segments in collaboration with Iran’s judicial system, which is based on the Islamic law concept of an “eye for an eye.” Although execution is the sentence for many violent crimes in Iran, including murder, the Iranian government also provides a victim’s family with the power to forgive. When forgiven, rather than being put to death, the convicted individual receives a lesser sentence of prison time and is responsible for a “price of blood” debt owed to the victim’s family. In June 2018, a donation drive during “Mah-e Asal” raised the equivalent of $7 million from Iranian citizens—an amount that paid off the blood debts of hundreds of prisoners.

All of this context is communicated methodically in “Yalda,” which Bakhshi names for an Iranian holiday that emphasizes spiritual rebirth and family togetherness. The winter solstice celebration has roots in the Zoroastrian religion, and its observance continues to this day although Shi’a Islam took hold in Iran in the 15th century. During Yalda, people eat red fruits like pomegranate and watermelon, symbolizing the glow of life; read poetry from the iconic Hafez, which is meant to provide lessons and divinations for the upcoming new year; and stay up late to maximize their time together. The holiday is supposed to be celebratory, but in “Yalda,” that joy is overshadowed: a young woman’s life hangs in the balance, depending on what happens during her appearance on the TV show “Joy of Forgiveness.” 

Nearly every element of “Joy of Forgiveness” is clearly inspired by “Mah-e Asal,” from the well-dressed, well-coiffed host Omid (Arman Darvish) to the opulent, gold-accented furniture onstage to the live audience of eager participants, who are encouraged to text their opinions on the show’s content. Up for consideration during “Yalda” is the innocence or guilt of Maryam Komijani (Sadaf Asgari), a 20-something convicted of killing her husband, Nasser Zia, the 65-year-old CEO of an ad agency. Nasser’s only child, daughter Mona (Behnaz Jafari), will decide whether to forgive Maryam. If Mona forgives Maryam, the “Joy of Forgiveness” will pay Maryam’s blood debt to Mona and the execution will be canceled, but if Mona chooses not to absolve Maryam, the widow will be sentenced to death and her family will be responsible for paying the money owed. And the 30 million viewers at home also get a say, Omid announces—their text messages also matter, similar to Western competition shows like “American Idol.”

Steely eyed in a maroon headscarf, with handcuffs around her wrists, Maryam walks through metal detectors and onto the “Joy of Forgiveness” set after already serving 15 months in prison for the killing of Nasser two years before. Ushered backstage, Maryam is aware of what her demanding mother (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) expects that she do: “Say ‘Zia was a gentleman, Mona was like a sister, and I regret everything,’” her mother instructs. “Kiss her hands and ask for forgiveness.” Maryam’s mother’s tireless coaching is inspired by fear that her daughter won’t go along with the normal dramatic-buildup-then-cathartic-release rhythm of “Joy of Forgiveness,” which is particularly expected for a Yalda-set episode. Viewers want to see a criminal repentant for her crimes and desperate for redemption, and a victim gracious in her forgiveness and sophisticated with her mercy. There is a certain way that “Joy of Forgiveness” is run, and Maryam’s mother worries that her daughter’s stubbornness will derail it. “You’re our last hope,” Maryam’s mother says to the show’s producer, Mr. Ayat (Babak Karimi), but Maryam herself is less interested in begging.

What Maryam insists upon is her own innocence, and Bakhshi pairs her with various characters involved in the production of the show to demonstrate the single-minded passion of her defense. Why ask for forgiveness, Maryam seems to reason, when she didn’t purposefully commit murder in the first place? She and Nasser fought; she pushed him, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs, perhaps accidentally; and she fled the home. It took 40 minutes for Nasser to die, and if she had called the police, Nasser might have lived. Yet Maryam refuses to speak with Mr. Ayat, whom she sees as a sort of manipulator. The older producer, one of the only men in the show’s control room, expects honesty from her but is unsympathetic to the story she provides. “You’re ungrateful. You turn your back on us,” Mr. Ayat says when Maryam, in a fit of anger, refuses to walk onto the set; his expectation is that this young woman demonstrate enough sorrow to please not only the audience, but also the government’s representatives who allow “Joy of Forgiveness” to feature these judicially themed segments. The show’s guest wrangler, Keshavarz (Forough Ghajabagli), is meant to soothe and calm invitees, but Maryam won’t engage in conversation. Her only communication with Keshavarz is her disappointment with the production’s choices: with featuring certain pictures of her, or with the experts they interview about her case. And when Maryam finally agrees to appear onstage for her segment opposite Mona, she is combative with Omid, rambling in her answers, determinedly not meek or diminutive. “I want to ask you about regret and remorse,” Omid says, but the unapologetic way that Maryam presents herself is outside the norm for “Joy of Forgiveness.”

Maryam’s fieriness is greater contextualized during the interview with Omid, whose questions of both her and the older Mona provide greater details about the families’ connections, how Maryam came to work for the Zias’ ad agency, and why she would decide to marry a man four decades older than she was. During the question and answer, Bakhshi aligns us with the perspective of a live audience member, seeing Mona and Zia in the same camera shots as decided by the control room. And although our visual point of view is narrowed, with Omid guiding the segment, our understanding of the class dynamics at play between Mona and Maryam is broadened. How Maryam’s father was Nasser’s driver, and how the Komijani family’s economic security was tied to that job. How after Maryam’s father died, Nasser and Mona hired Maryam at the ad agency as a way to subtly support the Komijanis, with Mona in particular serving as Maryam’s advocate. And how, when Nasser began issuing declarations of love to Maryam, she went to Mona for advice, who directed her to quit the job and ignore her father, making clear that Maryam was unfit to transition from a Komijani to a Zia. When Maryam instead listened to her mother’s guidance and married Nasser, the rift between the two women widened—and when Maryam got pregnant, rivaling Mona’s inheritance of her father Nasser’s estate, wider still.

The strict separation of social classes that so far had been implied in “Yalda,” with the polite but dismissive way certain members of the reality show’s production crew treat the older male security guard and beverage attendant also employed there, becomes extremely clear as the wealthy Mona and working-class Maryam assume their roles on the “Joy of Forgiveness” stage. Mona is distant, tight-lipped, remote. The show would prefer that she discuss more about her relationship with her father, Omid gently prompts, but Mona is disinterested in sharing her life. “Seeking pity is not suitable for your show,” Mona says to Omid, but what she is really saying that it such a performance is unsuitable for her, as an upper-class heiress. The entire point of “Joy of Forgiveness” is for Maryam to seek pity, but for Mona to do so would be to place herself on the same level as her former assistant turned mother-in-law, and that just won’t do. While Mona keeps herself from engaging fully, rarely making eye contact with Maryam and even positioning her body away from Omid’s during the interview, Maryam is hunched over, shrunk into herself, shaking with passion. The two women exemplify different kinds of Iranian femininity, and the characteristics they do or don’t display speak to various expressions of womanhood. The aloof, urban Mona, who speaks almost condescendingly to Maryam about her father’s affection, who basically tells this girl that she once considered nearly a sister, “My father proposes to all my friends.” “She didn’t understand, and she still doesn’t,” Mona adds, implying that Maryam herself is too uneducated, too common to grasp how the wealthy communicate their affection. Compared with Mona, Maryam seems naïve, perhaps slightly ignorant for not realizing that her marriage to Nasser would raise all kinds of questions about the Komijani family’s continued reliance on the Zias, but how she sticks to her story suggests a level of authenticity. Maryam might be unable to control her emotions, but at least she has them.

That’s not to say that “Yalda” underserves Mona, or in fact that it underplays any female character. Jafari plays Mona with tight control, a woman pressured into declaring an impactful judgment on live TV. There is no death sentence lingering over her head, but Mona’s appearance on “Joy of Forgiveness” makes her infamous, and there is an implied expectation that Mona will forgive to provide the communal sense of effective cleansing viewers are looking for. Bakhshi sketches the cocoon of wealth in which Mona has lived, but provides her with some sympathy, too: Her grief for her father is palpable, and her fury with Maryam is understandable. A scene where Mona discovers a shocking revelation about Maryam and her father’s marriage relies on handheld camerawork from cinematographer Julian Atanassov to place us directly beside Mona while the emotional wallop lands, and the choice is an effective one. This a film populated with a number of different women whose responsibilities sometimes overlap and sometimes are in conflict, but who consistently reflect the broad array of domestic and political opinion in Iran’s citizenry. Keshavarz serves at Mr. Ayat’s request, but she must balance the demands of “Joy of Forgiveness” with her own feelings about the guests. The control room is full of women running various aspects of the show’s production, and their gasps at the various revelations Omid draws from the women belie their own decisions about Maryam’s guilt. A group of law school students, led by a young woman, observe the interviews and deliver their opinions of the case on camera. One of Iran’s most well-known actresses appears on the episode to read a Hafez poem, as is customary for a Yalda celebration, and is drawn into the Mona vs. Maryam dynamic by a mysterious female visitor stationed in the show’s waiting room. And when certain characters allow their veils of behavior to slip, we see another level of identity lurking beneath what was shown on “Joy of Forgiveness.”

Outside of the confines of the studio, Mona calls a female friend, launches into a vulgarity-filled tirade against Maryam, and reveals her plans to leave Iran. “I want her to die. I want her hanged,” Mona rages, showing more emotion on this phone call than at any point when speaking to Omid. The reality TV format failed to capture the volcanic nature of her true reaction to reuniting with Maryam. Meanwhile, when Maryam realizes that her mother is responsible for a surprising betrayal, their familial dynamic crumbles. “Can’t you see what I’ve been through for you?” Maryam’s mother demands, but the tenseness of the scene demonstrates a definitive turning point. When Mona and Maryam have to return to “Joy of Forgiveness” for Mona’s final decision, they’ve each undergone another transformation behind the scenes that they don’t dare to reflect onstage. In the final moments of the episode, the women know that their roles as victim and criminal are utterly static, and in those moments their performances of forgiveness and contrition are not remotely realistic—but they’re exactly what the format demands and viewers expect.

There are moments when “Yalda” sardonically pokes fun at the absurdity of the reality TV format as a whole, such as a pop singer in a flashy leather jacket and oversized aviators crooning a slow jam about how “God is telling us that he loves us” while Maryam anxiously waits backstage for her appearance on a show that will determine whether she lives or dies. The vastly different stakes at play for the episode’s participants are made clear by Bakhshi’s steady pacing, evenhanded script, and detailed characterizations of the number of women who populate or consume “Joy is Forgiveness.” But most fundamental to “Yalda” is a concept that can be found in film, TV, and media studies professor Dr. Misha Kavka’s book about the genre, Reality TV: “Just as artifice is not opposed to actuality ... performance is not opposed to authenticity.” “Yalda” is a film concerned with conscious and unconscious performance, and about how the specific realities of Iranian domestic life shape expressions of individual identity. How the color of a headscarf, and how loosely or tightly a woman ties that covering around her hair, could affect someone’s opinion of them. How social media, used prevalently throughout Iran, could distort an outsider’s perception of a marriage—how the selves we present online focus on glamour instead of mundanity. How a TV show with set expectations of behavior for a convicted criminal and a beleaguered victim could reach a different level of truth when the participants buck against norms instead of entirely accepting them. 

“The self comes into being through the act of performance,” Kavka notes in her text, and so it goes for Mona and Maryam, even within their conflict. There are no happy endings here, only identities that are more greatly realized. By emphasizing her innocence, Maryam clears her name and steps away from her mother, but will forever be the subject of doubt and shame. By offering forgiveness, Mona makes clear the divide between the country’s wealthy and working classes, but never admits her own responsibility in the dissolution of Maryam and Nasser’s marriage. “Eye for an eye is very costly. It’s not easy at all,” Mona’s lawyer warns her. “Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness” builds upon that observation with a purposefully provocative drama, one forces viewers to consider the dualities of reality and authenticity alongside the potentially self-serving nature of compassion.   

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